The astounding rise of Smriti Zubin Irani within the Bharatiya Janata Party, her elevation from a clamorous though articulate party spokesperson to a cabinet minister in charge of the politically crucial Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) and her sudden fall from grace in the eyes of the party’s high command marks a political journey that can be called tumultuous. On July 5, 2016, Irani, who had developed a flair for courting controversies in the last two years, was shunted into the low-profile ministry of textiles, allegedly at the behest of BJP president Amit Shah, making her the biggest casualty of the cabinet rejig.
Not very long ago, she grabbed so much media attention over a variety of issues that she was being touted by the rumour mills as a probable chief ministerial candidate for the BJP in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly polls. According to various reports, she was considered close to both the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Yet, her constantly prickly attitude towards any comment she saw as critical showed her political naïveté, a factor that the BJP’s high command could not countenance.
Most of her tenure as the HRD minister was laced with controversies that did not behove a cabinet minister. Be it Rohith Vemula’s suicide, the so-called saffron appointments at universities or her cavalier attitude in getting the few sloganeering students arrested in Jawaharlal Nehru University; her heavy-handed methods of managing left a lot to be desired.
Renowned scientist and educationist Yashpal said, “I hoped she would do well but I have a feeling she was caught between the conflicts of the UPA and the NDA”. Perhaps this was the case in the early part of her tenure.
A few BJP workers that The Wire spoke to at the Delhi party office dismissed her an ‘actress-turned-politician’, referring to her as an individual incapable of handling important portfolios. The misogyny in the comment aside, Irani came across to most party workers as inaccessible and arrogant. The almost-nil empathy that she has received after the cabinet reshuffle points towards this persona that Irani has created, even cultivated in the last two years.
Hits and misses
One of the first decisions she took as the HRD minister was to scrap the Four Year University Programme (FYUP) that the UPA’s HRD minister Kapil Sibal had introduced in Delhi University. BJP and RSS’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), was one of the foremost opponents of the programme. A large section of academic community rejoiced at the decision, thinking that the FYUP would derail public education in India. Quite early in her tenure, she also hinted at increasing the number of scholarships for underprivileged groups and implementing measures that would help more women and students with disabilities get a higher education degree. She also took special interest in education for the girl child.
However, as it since turned out, the roll back of the FYUP and some cosmetic announcements remained the only positive achievements of Irani, according to many educationists. Soon after, the University Grants Commission (UGC) introduced the Choice-Based-Credit-System (CBCS) on the orders of Irani. The CBCS was the part of same reforms that Sibal had tried to introduce in the university system. While on paper the CBCS sounded good, the academic community feared that this would lead the way to privatise higher education as public universities were ill-placed, both in terms of financial and human resources, to handle the complex system.
For many years, the UPA was trying to push these higher education reforms in the name of ensuring quality education. Most of these reforms deviated from a public education model to a public-private partnership model, with regressive practices like hiring contractual teachers, outsourcing important disciplines to private universities and increasing tuition fees. Irani’s push towards this model, which was hardly any different from the UPA’s, led to widespread criticism from the academic community that included both teachers and students. It also created an impression that the NDA was an extension of UPA policies on education – something that worried a large chunk of BJP’s leadership.
The impact of such reforms were immediately felt. There were talks about dissolving the UGC as the governing body of the universities, or at least restructuring it. One of the first committees appointed by Irani was to review the functioning of the UGC. In keeping with the committee’s recommendations, the Modi government halved UGC funds in the 2016 budget, creating additional crunch for the already starving universities.
This led to an immediate surge in the tuition fees in prominent universities. The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) increased its annual fees from Rs 90,000 to Rs 2 lakh this year. Similarly, many central universities were forced to hike their fees, thus putting greater pressure on students from underprivileged backgrounds. In another controversy that led to pan-Indian dissension among students in the form of ‘Occupy UGC’ movement, the UGC under Irani decided to scrap non-NET fellowships in October last year. One of UGC’s committee reports proposed to do away with the monthly stipend that research students got (Rs 5,000 for MPhil and Rs 8,000 for PhD students). Irani received a lot a flak on the matter, following which she had to announce on Twitter that the fellowships would continue. But there has been no official revocation of the UGC decision until now.
“Irani”, said Ambarish Rai, a prominent public education activist who works with the Right to Education Forum, “intensified what the UPA started. Her term marks an unprecedented departure from India’s historical policy of mass education funded by the state. Her project got derailed because she met with a lot of resistance for her undemocratic and arrogant attitude. The new minister Prakash Javadekar, a mellow, friendly man but a known advocate of privately-funded education, has been brought in now to take this programme forward smoothly.”
In school education, similarly, the MHRD’s record under Irani has been abysmal. In her bid to privatise education, she maintained a considerable distance from civil society groups which monitor the implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act. In the last two years, Irani failed to even re-constitute an advisory committee mandated by the Act. This in itself is a violation of the RTE Act, as the Anil Bordia committee report on RTE made it compulsory for the government to engage with civil society groups to implement the RTE in a better way.
According to Rai, the MHRD’s focus under Irani has constantly been to introduce low-cost private schools all over India instead of spending more on public education. “Public education is important as a majority of Indian population will not be able to afford private schools, even if they are low cost,” he said.
Educationists speaking to The Wire said that Irani’s undemocratic approach towards governance reflected in the way education policies were made. Irani refused to acknowledge the efforts of T.S.R. Subramanian committee that worked on the New Education Policy (NEP) for more than a year and a half. This led to a fierce debate between Subramanian and Irani who refused to make the NEP report public. Despite the fiasco, Irani went ahead and published excerpts from the report in the ministry’s website without acknowledging the committee.
“The greatest problem with Irani was that she had no vision about how education policies could shape in India. She personalised every issue, while leaving the larger issues like appointments of teachers, low teacher-student ratio, poor infrastructure etc. unaddressed. She failed to understand that you have to build a certain confidence in the academic environment for the universities and schools to prosper,” said Anita Rampal, member of the HRD minister’s round table on school education and a professor in Delhi University’s department of education.
Janaki Rajan, former director of State Council of Educational Research and Training, Delhi said, “Even the Hunter Commission (colonial India’s first education commission in 1882) invited public consultations. Irani took most decisions by consulting only the administrative bodies, bypassing the larger academic community.”
While her unwillingness to listen to groups which work on the ground left her ignorant about persisting problems in the education sector, it also led her to introduce indulgent programmes. For example, she recently launched Vidyanjali programme, which according to many experts could spell disaster for school education. Vidyanjali allows the government to partner with volunteers who are willing to teach without any formal training.
“Lack of quality education is one of the most important problems in schools. The government, for a long time, has stopped hiring permanent teachers. At present, more than a lakh teachers are required in government schools but both the state and central governments have been hiring contractual teachers who obtain their degrees from the flourishing racket of private teaching schools as there are far too few publically-funded training schools. And now the Vidyanjali programme does not even require a teacher to be a professional,” said Rai.
Saffronisation, attack on student activism and more
Apart from such efforts to implement a pro-business agenda in the education sector, Irani also followed the RSS’s diktat of saffronisation – right from appointments to her strident attitude towards student activism. It has been alleged that Irani appointed only those on important positions such as vice-chancellor of a central university who were seen as sympathetic to the ruling BJP dispensation or were close to the RSS. For example, in November last year, Irani appointed Vishram Jamdar, a known RSS member, as the chairman of the Vishweshwaraya National Institute of Technology in Nagpur. Similarly, she put Modi’s close aide Zafar Sareshwala, better known as a businessman and car dealer, in the chancellor’s position of the Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad. Sareshwala replaced Syeda Hameed, former planning commission member, biographer of Maulana Azad and a great literary scholar. Similarly, the appointment of M. Jagadesh Kumar, who is alleged to have RSS links, as the VC of JNU also became controversial.
Not just appointments, Irani has also tried to set up separate vegetarian messes and introduce Sanskrit language as a compulsory course in IITs. In October 2014, Irani gave an order to replace German with Sanskrit as a third language in Kendriya Vidyalaya schools.
Irani was also accused by many for abetting Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide. In fact, she went ahead and questioned Vemula’s caste certificate and distorted facts in parliament. Similarly, her support to the arrest of JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya on charges of sedition and attempts to polarise the political environment on the lines of nationalism sparked a row. Like in Vemula’s case, Irani, in a dramatic speech in parliament, named many JNU students and presented a one-sided picture of the debate. She was accused of influencing the investigation by doing so as the matter was still pending inquiry.
In May last year, Irani allegedly played a role in banning the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), a critical students’ group at IIT Madras, which was later lifted after students agitated over the ban.
In her attack on all forms of student activism, a pattern came out clear: Irani was acting on behalf of the larger ideological Hindutva brigade which has always opposed critical students. For example, Irani ordered an enquiry on Vemula and his friends only after her cabinet colleague Bandaru Dattatreya wrote a series of letters to the HRD ministry on his perceived ‘extremist activities’. Irani’s order led to Vemula and his friends being suspended from the university and banned from entering hostels.
Similarly, Irani also paid heed to the request of RSS member S.S.K. Jain from Madhya Pradesh to order a probe on the so called ‘tamsic’ food at the IITs. Irani has officially said that she had no role in the banning of APSC, but it is a well-known fact that MHRD officials had asked IIT Madras to enquire into the role of the group following an anonymous complaint letter to the central government which alleged that the group was trying to create an atmosphere of hatred by distributing controversial pamphlets and posters. Both in the case of JNU and Hyderabad Central University, ABVP’s constant complaints played a huge role in influencing Irani to act against the students.
In September 2015, the MHRD ordered a probe on the ‘Islamisation’ of Puducherry University. Again, the minister acted on a complaint by a nondescript New Delhi-based group called Patriots Forum.
In every instance under her watch, the minister clearly sided with the Hindutva groups – to the extent that she gave prescriptions to the universities to ‘instil nationalism’. Irani called upon the Indian army to teach patriotism in the universities controlled by the government. The announcement came close on the heels of the another government’s directive to all the 46 central universities to hoist the national flag mandatorily.
While Irani pursued the twin goals of privatisation and saffronisation of education, her tenure will be remembered as the greatest frontal attack on the academic and philosophical autonomy of universities in the last few decades. Universities are supposed to be critical spaces, a ground for creative ideas and interventions. Irani, instead of nurturing them, launched a direct attack on this very notion of a university. She did not even spare the friendly administration of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), where she raised a storm over her move to include provisions in the IIM Bill that enable government intervention in the functioning of the IIMs. This was the prime reason that a majority of the academic community rose up against her.
Much of the initial criticisms against her were about her degree. Many questioned her educational qualifications and alleged that she had lied about her degrees. But in the end, it was her authoritarian reign, her refusal to engage with educationists and her angular attitudes that went against her.